Film Documentary: 27 Movie Documentaries You Absolutely Must See

MattDirector Stories, Filmmaking1 Comment

Learning anything is made easier when you get to see the masters actually at work. You can have all the theory in the world, but learning filmmaking is made easier when you get to watch the greats directing and making films. One of my favourite things to do is sit down and watch a film documentary. It’s an awesome way of getting into the minds of the all-time greats, seeing a glimpse of their process (if only for 90 minutes) and watching how they handle difficulties (and there are lots on these films!)

So if you’re interested in checking out a film documentary, here’s a list of 27 of my absolute favourites. All of these are documentaries about the making of films and feature behind-the-scenes looks at movies being made – from a pre-production, production and post-production perspective.

If you haven’t seen some of these yet, you should check them out!

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse

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Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse is an engrossing, unwavering look back at Francis Ford Coppola’s chaotic, catastrophe-plagued Vietnam production, Apocalypse Now. Filled with juicy gossip and a wonderful behind-the-scenes look at the stressful world of moviemaking, the documentary mixes on-location home movies shot in the Philippines by Eleanor Coppola, the director’s wife, with revealing interviews with the cast and crew, shot 10 years later.

Burden of Dreams

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For nearly five years, Werner Herzog worked on the most ambitious and difficult films of his career, Fitzcarraldo, the story of one man’s attempt to build an opera house deep in the Amazon jungle. Documentary filmmaker Les Blank captured the unfolding of this production, including a sequence requiring hundreds of native Indians to pull a full-size, 320-ton steamship over a small mountain.

Lost In La Mancha

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Lost in La Mancha is a documentary film focusing on Terry Gilliam’s failed attempt to film “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”. For ten years director Terry Gilliam (Twelve Monkeys, Brazil, The Fisher King) had been trying to get a movie made of Don Quixote made. It is his dream project. Unfortunately for Gilliam, it is also a film he has never gotten to make. Lost in La Mancha covers the six weeks of preproduction and the six days of actual production on the film.

Lost in La Mancha is a document of what can go wrong on a film shoot. During this documentary, a crew member states that if someone would write this story, nobody would believe him. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong.

Overnight

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Boston-bred bartender Troy Duffy discovers overnight success when he sells his screen play, The Boondock Saints, to Miramax President Harvey Weinstein. After several months of calls go un-returned, the film is dropped by Miramax and picked up by a smaller company for half its original budget.

American Movie

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Struggling filmmaker Mark Borchardt is the subject of American Movie, and he may also be the most determined man you’ll ever meet. The straggly haired, fast-talking, Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, native lists his greatest influences as Dawn of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He began making horror movies as a gangly adolescent, and is now set on finishing Coven (which he pronounces like “woven”), the “35-minute direct market thriller” he has worked on for two years.

In the process, he steadfastly battles immense debt, the threat of losing his kids, and birds chirping gleefully through scenes set in the dead of winter. His mother would rather do her shopping than be an extra, his brother contends he’s best suited for factory work, and his father just wants him to “watch the language.”

Full Tilt Boogie

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Full Tilt Boogie is a 1997 documentary directed by Sarah Kelly that chronicles the production of the 1996 film From Dusk till Dawn.

It features extensive interviews with the cast and crew covering a variety of topics related to the film. This includes the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees protesting the non-union status of the film. The production crew for the documentary are also non-union.

Best Worst Movie

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Sometimes the past can come back to haunt you. In 1989, budding child actor Michael Paul Stephenson got a leading role in a movie. Unfortunately, that movie was Troll 2, an ultra-low-budget filmed-in-three-weeks-in-Utah schlocker that went direct to video.

Nearly two decades later, thanks in part to broadcasts on HBO, Troll 2 developed a maniacal cult following that continues to pack theaters across the country for midnight screenings. Who were these people? Why had they embraced this particular bad movie? And what impact did the film’s newfound cult status have on the people who made it, some of whom do not include it on their résumés?

Making the Shining

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Available on VHS and DVD editions of The Shining from the 1999 release of the Stanley Kubrick Collection, The Making of “The Shining” is a 30-minute documentary directed by Stanley Kubrick’s daughter Vivian, who would later provide the eerie, mechanical music for Full Metal Jacket (credited as Abigail Mead).

Rarely seen since it was originally broadcast on British television in 1980, this behind-the-scenes film eschews narration in favor of casual encounters with Kubrick, Jack Nicholson, and other members of the cast. It’s one of the only audio-visual records of Kubrick at work, and offers a fascinating glimpse of the director’s personality and its influence on his actors and crew.

Particularly revealing is a confrontation between Kubrick and Shelley Duvall, who later explains that the filming was intense and often difficult but always rewarding. Nicholson is shown to be insightful, devoted to his craft, and mischievously energetic (this is Jack, after all!), and Scatman Crothers is moved to tears when describing the privilege of working on the film. There’s a splendid moment when Kubrick’s mother visits the set and gets a quick lesson on the rigors of script revision, and James Mason (who starred in Kubrick’s Lolita) also stops by for a visit, still wearing his costume from Murder by Decree, which was being filmed in a nearby studio. For Kubrick fans, this is a “home movie” you don’t want to miss.

Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner

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A feature-length authoritative documentary revealing all the elements that shaped this hugely influential cinema landmark. Cast, crew, critics and colleagues give a behind-the-scenes, in-depth look at the film — from its literary roots and inception through casting, production, visuals and special effects to its controversial legacy and place in Hollywood history.

The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys

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It documents the difficulties encountered in trying to make a relatively un-Hollywood movie inside of the Hollywood system. It tells the story of how Twelve Monkeys got to be made under exceptional circumstances, and is very effective at conveying the frustrations and problems encountered in dealing with the various collaborators.

Nevertheless, it remains light-hearted and candid, and is presented in the true off-beat style of Terry Gilliam. It also gives us a fascinating look at Terry Gilliam’s unique style of filmmaking. – imdb review

That Moment: Magnolia Diary

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A very in-depth documentary that follows the very over-worked director Paul Thomas Anderson through a gruelling 80+ days of shooting for the film Magnolia (1999). Very funny behind the scenes material and interviews, press junket video and various screenings and meetings are presented to us, just to let us know how hard it really is to make a 188-minute film. – imdb review

As far as I can see, it can’t be purchased and isn’t available on any DVD anywhere, so here’s a link to a YouTube video I found:

The Making of Fanny and Alexander

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The Making of Fanny and Alexander is a fascinating look at the creation of a masterpiece. Directed by Ingmar Bergman himself, this feature-length documentary chronicles the methods of one of cinema’s true luminaries as he labors to realize his crowning production.

Featuring Bergman at work with many of his longtime collaborators—including cinematographer Sven Nykvist and actors Erland Josephson, Gunnar Björnstrand, and Harriet Andersson—The Making of Fanny and Alexander is a witty and revealing portrait of a virtuoso filmmaker.

The Godfather Family: A Look Inside

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A documentary on the making of the three Godfather films, with interviews and recollections from the film makers and cast. This feature also includes the original screen tests of some of the actors for “The Godfather” film, and some candid moments on the set of “The Godfather: Part III.” – imdb review

Jodorowsky’s Dune

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In 1975, director Alejandro Jodorowsky began work on his most ambitious project yet. Starring his own 12-year-old son alongside Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, David Carradine and Salvador Dalí, featuring music by Pink Floyd and art by some of the most provocative talents of the era, including H.R. Giger and Jean “Moebius” Giraud, Jodorowsky’s adaptation of the classic sci-fi novel DUNE was poised to change cinema forever.

Through interviews with legends and luminaries including H.R. Giger (artist, Alien), Gary Kurtz (producer, Star Wars Episodes IV & V) and Nicolas Winding Refn (director, Drive), and an intimate and honest conversation with Jodorowsky, director Frank Pavich’s film finally unearths the full saga of ‘The Greatest Movie Never Made’.

The Snowball Effect

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A really entertaining and thankfully in-depth look at the road to Clerks, taking the journey with Kevin Smith from birth to high school sketch comedy to working odd jobs with no direction post-high school to seeing Slacker to making the movie to getting it seen to getting it in Sundance to finally finally getting it sold.

This is a refreshing departure from a lot of DVD making-of docs which are loaded with clips and halfhearted praise from the participants about everyone else on the film. The Clerks story is one of the great underdog tales of indie film, and this doc really lays it all out carefully, clearly, and amusingly for fans and wannabes alike. -imdb review

Buenos Aires Zero Degree: The Making of Happy Together

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The documentary itself is a gem as it reveals so many storylines that did not appear in the final film. It is fascinating to see the directions the film might have taken and how such a different film could have come out of the editing room. We can really appreciate Wong Kar-Wai’s process, working without a script, and see the difficulties it causes for the actors. Lead actor Tony Leung’s comments about working on the film are especially insightful. – Amazon review

My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

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Liv Corfixen wrote and directed this documentary that clocks in under a hour and features the making of her husband’s Only God Forgives. We basically get a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film as well as the tole that it takes on that film’s writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn who of course is the husband of Corfixen. – imdb review

30 Days in Hell: The Making of ‘The Devil’s Rejects’

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An exhaustive, detailed documentary on the 30-day film shoot of “The Devil’s Rejects.”

The Making of ‘Psycho’

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A retrospective on the entire movie, from start to finish. There are interviews with many of the principle cast and crew (including Janet Leigh and Joseph Stefano), who all talk openly and lovingly about entire process of making the film. The sessions with Janet Leigh are particularly involving, and she talks a great deal about shooting the now infamous shower scene.

Also, check out the book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello, which covers a lot of the same ground.

Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky

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During the shooting of Andrei Tarkovsky’s last film Offret, cameraman Arne Carlsson taped around 50 hours of behind the scenes footage. Editor Michal Leszczylowski took the material and added scenes of previous interviews and interesting statements from the script of Offret and from Tarkovsky’s book ‘Sculpting in Time’.

The result is a documentary that shows the way Tarkovksy worked: carefully building each scene. Shows why he did the things he did: his vision on film. And shows the emotion of the man Tarkovsky: his great disappointment when the camera breaks while shooting the house going up in flames. – imdb review

Dogville Confessions

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This film depicts the intense drama that takes place during the making of Dogville. Lars von Trier and Nicole Kidman work through this creative process under very extreme conditions.

The Making of ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’

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Included on the Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Special Edition DVD, this very lengthy documentary chronicles the making of the film, from conception, to production, to post-production. The cast (mainly Spielberg on the set of Saving Private Ryan) offer their recollections. -imdb review

King Kong: Peter Jackson’s Production Diaries

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The King Kong – Peter Jackson’s Production Diaries is an impressive set geared directly toward fans, collectors, and those interested in the film-making process. In all likelihood Peter Jackson and co. are going to release a King Kong set bulging with extras, so why buy the “extras” now? Fair question. However, if you’re aching with anticipation for a major glimpse into the 6-month production process of this modern day extravaganza, the King Kong – Peter Jackson’s Production Diaries is an absolute “must have.”

Completely Cuckoo

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Nice but somewhat short documentary that came as extra material in a DVD-edition of the Cuckoo’s nest that I bought. A rather hasty and sometimes thin account of the creation of one of the biggest classics of the history of motion pictures. It feels a bit like it’s been put together for the sole reason that the special edition of the DVD needs to have extra material.

There are a lot of interviews with many of the actors and the production crew. Not one word from Jack Nicholson or Will Sampson thought, which was sort of disappointing. However the material is nice and interesting and the tone is sympathetic and humble and especially the scenes with screenwriter Bo Goldman are really good. The last scene, were Goldman gives his interpretation of the Mcmurphy-saga in a couple of sentences is as strong as ever the original itself. – imdb review

De ydmygede AKA The Humiliated

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Lars von Trier’s masterpiece Idioterne (1998) is an absolute must-see if you are interested in European independent movies with more depth and originality than the average Hollywood blockbuster formula: kiss kiss, bang bang!!

If you want to learn more about Idioterne, about the creation of it, about sticking to the Dogme95 rules, and Lars von Trier’s thoughts during the process then Jesper Jargil’s documentary De Ydmygede is absolutely essential viewing. It’s structured together by short clips from Trier’s movie, Jargil’s footage shot on the set, and, most importantly, out-takes from Lars von Trier’s dicta-phone diary used as a voice-over.

Lars von Trier speaks straight from his heart without beating around the bush. He talks about his feelings, thoughts, phobias, meanings, and different problems he had during the shooting the movie. I once saw an interview with Trier, in which he said he would have loved if Ingmar Bergman had written diaries during shooting of his classics, so in a sense, Trier is doing all his young fans a favor. It’s a truly a great gift for young ambitious movie-makers. Yet his very unfiltered diary entries are a mess without any kind of structure, and I believe some of it could have been left out. Running at 79 minutes, I think Jargil’s documentary could have used some tightening up, some of the material is simply not interesting enough. On the other hand, the loose structure goes very well hand-in-hand with Idioterne, and is as such not meant as an average factual documentary, rather than a fly-on-the wall kind with emotional insight into the director’s mind. Definitely worth a watch! – imdb review

Lightning Over Water

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Director ‘Nicholas Ray’ is eager to complete a final film before his imminent death from cancer. Wim Wenders is working on his own film Hammett (1983) in Hollywood, but flies to New York to help Ray realize his final wish. Ray’s original intent is to make a fiction film about a dying painter who sails to China to find a cure for his disease. He and Wenders discuss this idea, but it is obviously unrealistic given Ray’s state of health.


How did you find this list of film documentaries? Anything missing? Let me know in the comments below if you have a favorite film documentary to add.

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One Comment on “Film Documentary: 27 Movie Documentaries You Absolutely Must See”

  1. A pretty comprehensive list. I’ve seen a fair few of those but added lots more to my Amazon list.

    Thanks!

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